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Andrew Taylor walks the rugged coastal splendour of the Great Ocean Road.
Naked ladies are hardly what you expect to see by the side of a dirt track winding through the hills along Victoria's rugged Shipwreck Coast. Flesh-pink and sweet-smelling, they are a striking sight growing straight out of the ground on thick stems without any leaves.
But the Amaryllis belladonna, to give these South African flowers their botanical name, is an intruder among the forests of mountain ash and manna gums, thick fern gullies and stands of tea tree and she-oaks that line the Great Ocean Walk on Victoria's south-west coast.
We've already been stopped in our tracks by a mob of eastern grey kangaroos, come within reaching distance of koalas lounging around drunkenly on the branches of manna gums at the Cape Otway lighthouse and spied a colony of New Zealand fur seals sunning themselves off Marengo Point.
But a more surprising sight after the seven-kilometre uphill trek from Johanna Beach is Captain Bert, a nautically dressed scarecrow standing in an upturned row boat next to a basket of apples and home-made jams provided by Brian, whose straw-bale house has priceless views of the windswept coast.
Brian is one of the few people we encounter along the 104-kilometre hiking trail, which runs from Apollo Bay to the Twelve Apostles, through the Great Otway and Port Campbell national parks.
The Great Ocean Walk borrows its name from the world-famous road that runs 243 kilometres from the surfing mecca of Torquay to Warrnambool. But while the Great Ocean Road travels inland through lush dairy-farming country and the thickly forested Otway Ranges, the walk hugs the coast.
The pounding beat of waves breaking is ever-present as we follow the trail through terrain ranging from rocky, scrub-covered cliff tops to windswept beaches made perilous by jagged rocks that presented a constant hazard to 19th-century shipping traffic.
A more immediate danger are my hiking boots, which have not seen the light of day since last century, which is my excuse for lagging behind my fellow hikers, whose ages and fitness levels are far superior.
They are more than halfway through their seven-day hike organised by Bothfeet walking lodge and are frighteningly chipper despite having trodden more than 50 kilometres.
Judy powers ahead of the group as if she's jet-propelled, while Doug and Valerie photograph every mushroom, insect and flower with an eye for detail that would impress David Attenborough. English couple Tim and Rachel walk at a more leisurely pace as they admire our guide Jason's bulging calf muscles.
Bothfeet offers shorter, three- and four-day guided tours taking in the second half of the Great Ocean Walk from Johanna Beach. Most of the walk is graded moderate and is certainly more demanding than a stroll in the park. But day packs filled with water, lunch and a waterproof jacket - all provided - are not too onerous a load.
Cliff-top views of the Southern Ocean, looking far from menacing, provide plenty of distraction from the occasional uphill climbs that Jason calls "a bit of a pinch". He also gives a running commentary on flora and fauna, such as the kangaroo apple, a small orange fruit with leaves shaped like a kangaroo's foot, which local indigenous people would eat as a form of contraception.
Jason points out other edible plants, such as bush currants and Warrigal greens, should we have an attack of the munchies that cannot wait for a morning tea of fruit and date slice prepared by Bothfeet's chef, Ha Nguyen.
Dinner the previous night had been a three-course meal of pork-belly salad followed by rockling and a dessert of rhubarb and lemon sorbet. If that or a breakfast of eggs benedict wasn't enough to make us go weak at the knees, there's still afternoon tea to look forward to at the end of the day's 20-kilometre hike to Moonlight Head, the toughest day of the trek
It is possible to camp along the Great Ocean Walk, but the prospect of eating dehydrated ready meals, sleeping on the ground and not washing for seven days is not as enticing as being fed five meals a day by Ha. His cooking would not be out of place in a top restaurant and is one of the highlights of Bothfeet hiking lodge, which is behind Johanna Beach, about halfway along the Great Ocean Walk.
Food aside, there are plenty of other attractive features about staying at Bothfeet, not least of which is a comfortable bed, hot shower and heating in rooms that can be configured as king, twin-share or two single rooms.
The dining area is called the Wreck Room, presumably after the many ships that foundered along the coast rather than the state of walkers at the end of the day, and has a lounge area, communal dining table and one iPad with slow wireless. The lodge also has a library and provides daily newspapers, but no televisions might not be to everyone's liking.
More enticing are the outdoor foot spas that Jason and the lodge's other guide, Marie, prepare at the end of each day to soak weary feet.
Mine are a crime scene, with a particularly impressive blister on the Achilles tendon of my right foot that looks ominous for the rest of the trip. However, Marie comes to the rescue with her morning foot clinic, applying soothing balms and bandages to angry blisters, and then draws smiley faces on the sticking plasters, with the delicacy and expertise of a bomb disposal expert.
The path from Moonlight Head to Princetown meanders through eucalyptus forests to the Gables, the highest ocean-cliff lookout before descending 366 stairs to Wreck Beach, which is scattered with the remnants of the Marie Gabrielle - one of 200 known shipwrecks along this coast.
Jason gives us the official account of the ship, which sank in 1869 carrying 135 kilograms of tea, before adding some spice to the story.
"Reports allege the captain was seen leaving his cabin shortly after they'd run aground, closely followed by one of the young lasses on the ship," Jason says.
The anchor of the Fiji, which was carrying dynamite and steel cables when it ran aground in 1891, is also on the beach.
Help came in the form of a horse-drawn cart and a camera crew but not the heavy ropes needed for the rescue, Jason says. "They're not sure if somebody took it out to fit the camera gear in or if a local farmer needed to pull a bogged cart out somewhere."
Our day ends at the mouth of the Gellibrand River, where Greg, Jason and I throw caution and modesty to the (cold) wind and dive into the water in which indigenous people, Jason tells us, tried to farm eels.
"So that's why I didn't want to swim," Judy shoots back.
The next day, we almost jog the final eight kilometres of the walk, above Clifton Beach and past the 1869 Glenample Homestead, as we get closer to the Twelve Apostles, which blistering wind and rain have whittled to eight.
Our walk ends in the air, with a 15-minute helicopter flight over the Apostles and a coastline sculpted into undulating curves. Of course, nature cannot compete with the young helicopter pilots who catch the eye of some of our party.
Andrew Taylor was a guest of Bothfeet.
Bothfeet walking lodge is at 70 Stafford Road, Johanna, about 220 kilometres from Melbourne. Pick-ups can be arranged from the Alto Hotel, 636 Bourke Street, Melbourne, at 8am.
The seven-day Great Ocean Walk departs once to twice a month from September to May. $2995 an adult.
The four-day Twelve Apostles Walk (55 kilometres) departs on Wednesdays and Sundays four times a month. $1995 an adult.
There is also a discount for bookings made before July 31.
All guided walks include a helicopter flight over the Twelve Apostles and return transfers from Melbourne CBD/airport on return. Self-guided options are also available for the four-day or seven-day walks.